300 years ago a movement of revival started within British and later American churches. This movement called the Church to return to the Gospel. It called the Church to share the message of Jesus with others and to follow Jesus more boldly. This movement was very diverse for its day. It affected most Christian denominations in the English-speaking world, and it touched many Christian communities. It was an international, interracial, intercultural, and interdenominational movement.
This movement promoted education, social reform, and inclusion in the Church. This movement was one of the main forces behind social justice movements for much of its history. Abolitionism, poverty-relief efforts, the Social Gospel, Labor Movement, Civil Rights Movement, and many other important causes were at least influenced by this movement.
The movement that I am talking about is Evangelicalism, but despite Evangelicalism having such a long and noble history, most don’t recognize it today – at least not in the United States. There are a number of factors that contributed to this:
First, Evangelicalism has always had a white supremacist wing. Even though Evangelicalism was indispensable in the abolitionist and civil rights movements, there was also always a segment that opposed those movements. On the one hand, you had John Wesley who argued strongly against slavery, but on the other you had Jonathan Edwards who owned slaves. There are still schisms in American churches over this exact issue. The Southern Baptist Convention is an example of an American Evangelical church founded on white supremacist principles.
Second, a movement in the early 20th century United States arose known as Fundamentalism. The original fundamentalists were orthodox theologians who were largely mainstream but opposed liberal theology. However, the second generation of the movement (and the movement today) is known for anti-intellectualism, separatism, bigotry, and literalism. This movement became extremely popular in many Christian churches and now some people will equate Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism.
Third, a movement emerged in the 1970s that closely linked Evangelicalism, Fundamentalism, and American conservative politics. One primary force behind this movement was an organization called the Moral Majority, but the movement is much bigger than one organization and is often collectively called the Religious Right. This movement was very successful. They essentially highjacked the term “evangelical” to refer to white American Protestants who were in the conservative wing of the Republican Party. They also latched onto two key issues – abortion and homosexuality. Still to this day, abortion and homosexuality seem to be the only cultural issues many American Evangelicals care about.
These three movements – white supremacy, fundamentalism, and conservatism – have all slowly chipped away at classical Evangelicalism, and they have been incredibly successful at doing so. I am a person of Evangelical background, and the church community I serve has some Evangelical background as well. However, it is nearly impossible to use the term anymore. If I say that I am an “Evangelical” in any sense, people immediate assume that I am a fundamentalist, conservative, white American Protestant.
Since the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s, there has been a sad hypocrisy associated with the Evangelical movement in the United States. It is plain to see. Many of us know the news stories of conservative preachers or politicians losing their careers in scandals of sex, drugs, or corruption. It is something of a stereotype at this point, but it is unfortunately a very true one.
Over these past few decades we have seen American Evangelicalism distance itself more and more from historic Evangelicalism as well as the Evangel (Gospel) itself. In order to gain popularity, many preachers built media and political empires which came with fame and fortune. Many involved in politics or activism sacrificed their values to win elections. It often seems to be the case that many American Evangelicals today go as far as to endorse beliefs and practices that they consider sinful as long as it gives them more power. The endorsement of Mitt Romney in 2012 was an example of this, since Romney is a Mormon. But the endorsement of Donald Trump takes this even further. Here is a man who shows a complete disregard for God and the Bible and lives the life of a playboy, and yet he is held up as the “Christian” candidate.
What we have now is a sad Frankenstein’s monster. Right wing politics (including white supremacism at times) and fundamentalism have twisted Evangelicalism into something it was never intended to be. It reminds me of the history of European monarchs bending the Church to do their bidding, or how early 20th century fascists seduced European churches.
Instead of Evangelicalism, I think what we have now is Americanism. The three movements that chipped away at Evangelicalism all reflect a very American context. The US has a history of white supremacy, slavery, and systemic racism that still hasn’t been fully addressed. It is the US that served as the birthplace of Fundamentalism, and it is the US that gave us the contemporary Religious Right. I have come across many Evangelicals who believe that the US is uniquely blessed and inspired by God, and that our elections are supernatural battlegrounds. This has really shown itself with the 2020 presidential election as many Evangelicals are now taking it on faith that Trump has won reelection somehow.
There are also many ideological principles that American Evangelicalism has since adopted that have no basis in the Bible. The US Constitution is not in the Bible (nor in historical Evangelicalism, which was based in the United Kingdom), but yet so many will hold up the US style of government as being uniquely Christian. The Bible does not teach republicanism, capitalism, or individualism. These are all products of the Enlightenment, and many early Evangelicals (such as John Wesley) disagreed with those ideologies. In European Evangelicalism, the movement is heavily involved within Christian Democratic parties today, showing that many Evangelicals outside of the US still retain some of that perspective. But in American Evangelicalism, one does not dare challenge the American-style of government or capitalism.
Simply put, we are no longer talking about Evangelicalism in America. Over the course of decades, negative forces picked away at the Evangelical movement until almost nothing of substance was left in it. That void was then filled by America, and not the real America either. That void was filled by an American ideal. I think we all know exactly what I mean here – it is the idealistic version of America that was created during the Cold War to oppose Communists and hippies. It is the American ideal created by white conservative churches worried about the Civil Rights Movement, Equal Rights Movement, and other progressive causes. In fact, Jerry Falwell – who founded the Moral Majority – was a segregationist and opposed the Equal Rights Amendment.
We are then left with a question – what do we do about Evangelicalism? Most people involved with PCPJ are Evangelicals (or of Evangelical background). I personally love the term. But how can we possibly reclaim it? How can we restore it to what it originally meant? I am not sure, but I know that we must return to the Gospel like the founders of Evangelicalism did. Only by trying to actively and boldly follow Jesus again will any positive change be made.
Rev. Kevin R. Daugherty is an Elder in the Convergent Christian Communion, Abbot for Kindling Fires: A New Monastic Order, and works as a clerk in Elizabeth, PA.
Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice is a multicultural, gender inclusive, and ecumenical organization that promotes peace, justice, and reconciliation work among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world. If you like what we do, please become a member!
4 thoughts on “It’s not Evangelicalism Anymore”
Thanks for this enlightening article, Kevin. I appreciate gaining a greater understanding of how this misshapen and deformed thing came about. Unfortunately, I do not think the term is reclaimable in real terms. In the end, it’s just a word developed to help us understand, like Method-ist and Protest-ant and Charismatic… Herod asked the magi to come back to him so he could worship the new born king too, but he had no intention of actually doing that. Just saying ‘this is what I am’ doesn’t mean it’s what a person is. Worship of Christ is known by its fruit. ‘Twas ever thus and so it will continue to be. Shakespeare put it well when he enquired ‘what’s in a name? a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. We smell like what we are, regardless of the names we use. God help us follow Christ, rather than be ‘Christian’.